We Went to the Woods: A Novel by Caite Dolan-Leach

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After that first chilly evening out in the country, we were like unlanded peasants bewtiched by the promise of future rootedness.

Working one night at a fundraiser behind the bar, Mack enters a caption contest and wins, drawing the attention of beautiful Louisa Stein- Jackson. This is the real win of the night. Invited to her garden party on a cold New York winter night she meets Chloe, Beau, and Jack when she accepts the invitation and is soon charmed by their stimulating conversation and beauty.  A week later, Louisa’s seductive dream of  running an idyllic Homestead together has taken root in them all. They should have paused to really think about that word, idyllic. Homesteading is anything but, and an organic existence doesn’t happen because you embrace the romanitcism of purity and freedom, you know, everything sold in ads that is all sunshine and beekeeping. But Louisa assures them, this isn’t some ‘half-baked spiritual notion of cutting themselves off from the world”. No, they just want to know what they are eating… be closer to the process. Not ingest poisons that GE farmers provide! It’s not quite the reality twenty-somethings lacking skills are going to be able to achieve without making mistakes. Certainly Louisa’s family wealth doesn’t hurt yet there is irony there I think. Louisa is adamantly against capitilism but a part of the priveldged. Can you really achive this utopia when you are grasping the wealth you’re turning away from for something more genuine? Oh well, nothing wrong with money, so long as they aren’t giving it to those nasty corporations, right? Before they venture forth into the woods, a strange incident seems to seal the deal, driving them into a deeper intimacy when they witness an accident. Certainly it feels ominous.

So begins the farming and as long as they are together that’s all that matters, right? The tender intimacy of it all? Mistakes will happen, they aren’t fools. How together are they really? Beau is a mystery (Mack tells us this), as are his disappearances, regardless of how Louisa seethes inside, it’s accepted by the friends as just his way. But his friendliness with neighbors at the ‘collective’ isn’t going over well, particularly the females. It doesn’t stop Lousia from letting him into her cabin late at night. Are Louisa and Beau really together? In fact, they all seem to take part in nighttime wanderings, except for Mack. Mack is the watcher, desperately jealous for her own trysts. Too cowardly to take what she wants, instead content to yearn from afar. Naturally she is as pulled in by Beau’s magnetism as the rest. Jack is the most solid, Jack actually knows a thing or two about farming. Why can’t she desire Jack, Jack is someone she could have if she wanted. Ah, that’s why…

Happy to be out of New York, she has her own dark shame to escape having been involved in something called ‘The Millienail Experiment’, while trying complete her PH.D. program in Anthropolgy. This could be the perfect escape from her current bleak reality, this thing that Jack calls the “Grand Experiment”. If she nearly drowns in freezing water with the fragile Chloe, well it’s worth it. Here she can be invisible from the outside world and yet share profound intimacy with a chosen few. Her deepest desire is for someone to explain her to herself. Maybe they can!

The land begins to feel as much hers once she settles in with the others. Too, the sense of community she didn’t realize she had lacked is nearly enough to keep her warm through the cold nights, as is her hunger to be self-sufficient. Yet the relationships are not as they seem. Louisa and Beau aren’t new to the Homestead having worked the last year on it. But this is a “collective endevor” so why focus on that? Here they can sustain themselves, find meaning, not like the world they feel has nothing to offer them- educated and meandering, society treating their generation as if they created all the problems that is their inheritance. Little does she realize how much animosity Louisa feels for the local farmer whose land borders hers, farmers who grow genitcally engineered corn. Nor the trouble it will bring.

Beofre long Louisa begins to obsess over Chuck Larson, doing all she can to disrupt the farmer. Fennel, one of Beau’s girls from the collective is more than just a distraction. There is a bigger story than Mack knew, and soon after joining Beau and Louisa protesting fracking, she meets Mathew, the head of collectives and is privy to plans to stop Lakeview from successfully taking over land locally. Getting entangled with others wasn’t what they signed up for. There is a thin line between passionate causes and crimal acts. Through seasons of exhuasting work and fruitful harvest, the idle is disturbed by the infectious presence of the neighboring collective and it’s leader. Alongisde their own story is the tale of an early attempt at Utopia in the form of writings by a man named William Fulsome. The hardships aren’t that much different from the ones they too face. What will get them all in the end? Will it be the elements, their dreams or each other? It’s wise to remember that all families, whether self-made or not, have seeds of destruction and secrets they keep from others. Idealism is contagious, reality always creeps in…

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Random House

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Family of Origin: A Novel by C.J. Hauser

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Elsa and Nolan Grey might have been happier if they could be forgetful, or dead, but they were not. The Greys remembered everything. 

They were fondlers of old grudges and conjurers of childhood Band-Aid smells. They were rescripters of ancient fights and relitigators of the past. The were scab-pickers and dead-horse-beaters and wallowers of the first order.

Could it really be? Could evolution be going in reverse? A group of scientists, researchers and naturalists known as the Reversalists on the Gulf Coast believe it is so. Studying a rare species of duck, the Undowny Bufflehead, having discovered its feathers are not waterproof serves as a sign that evolution has reversed it’s course. Subsequent to their father’s death by drowning, the Grey siblings join one another at Watch Landing on Leap Island to make sense of it all. With the knowledge that their father Dr. Ian Grey retreated to the island under the umbrella of shame for entertaining such an outlandish theory based on a ‘ridiculous’ duck of all things, Elsa is filled with fury. Surely he didn’t believe such a crackpot theory, not a man as intelligent as her father!

There is no love lost between the siblings, in Elsa’s eyes Nolan is needy and weak, despite looking so much like their father and having spent years ‘sucking up their father’s time’ he certainly didn’t inherit the old man’s genius. When her father left he started his ‘new family’ with Nolan’s mother Keiko, a microbiome researcher. The real wound for Elsa was in all her father’s disappearances, the first costing her the joys of life at the farmhouse her mother Ingrid (a nurse), she and Dr. Grey lived at. Nolan, forever the usurper of her former life, of course as a child she hated him. Nolan’s feelings for Elsa are tangled up, having an effect on every relationship and choice in his life. Elsa, always ‘taking up more space than she deserved’ in his mind and heart. There is a fault line beneath them created by actions in their past, something Elsa does her utmost best to avoid.

Family of origin is often defined as the people who care for you, your siblings, people you grow up with and certainly a fitting title as Elsa and Nolan suffer the miseries created by their own. Mostly blame for their dysfunctional upbringing to be laid at their father’s feet, cold from his watery grave. Who swims in a storm? Was it an accident or something worse? Nolan and Elsa are equally shocked to know that Ian’s fellow islanders took his work seriously. The two certainly feel that coming here could have been just another escape from them, could the duck and their father’s belief in reversalism really just be about his own children, their lack of evolution as competent successful offspring?

Elsa struggles in her own day-to-day, teaching children, with a terrible lapse in judgement just before Nolan’s call about their father. Not dealing well with people in general, living life in a numbed state, just floating along. She longs for escape that would put a vast distance between her and others, much further than Dr. Ian and his little island could have hoped to be. Meeting Esther Stein who holds a PhD in ecology, her disdain for the youth is obvious, with all their ‘allergies’ and inability to venture into the very environment they live in. It’s hard to deny all the young adults and children are changing as much as the ducks. People are no longer adapting! Just look around, you’ll see it too! The Millennials are ruining the species, coddled, weak and if their dad believed that to be true as much as Esther, than he didn’t believe in his own children, right? That stupid duck is a representation of their own failure.

This story is about confronting the past, and the real mystery is between Nolan and Elsa more than their father’s death. Elsa can run off to another planet but isn’t going to erase what’s between them. There are secrets to uncover but does knowing change their personal history, the weight they have carried because of it? What happens when the object of your anger is gone, or the person you resented is more victim than the villain of the story you thought was set in stone? One thing is certain, Elsa and Nolan are far more curious a study than the rare species of duck! It doesn’t take a fictional story to nudge us in the direction that we humans often seem to be hopeless creatures, destroying our environment and much of the novel seems hopeless in that aspect. Worse, we tend not to evolve in our personal surroundings too, as evidenced by the Grey siblings. We carry the wrong stories, and poison our own well so to speak and of course we can blame our ‘family of origin’ for that, at least Elsa and Nolan can. How are we to understand the natural world when we live with so much subterfuge coming at us from all directions? Nolan and Elsa are forced to face their own hopelessness, and maybe change direction because it’s not really about the duck.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Doubleday Books

The Ash Family: A Novel by Molly Dektar

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“Why would you want to leave, when you’ll have more freedom here than anywhere else?” He said. The family’s father, Bay said, was Dice, and Dice would understand me the way a lightning bolt would understand a rod.

At Nineteen years old Berie doesn’t intend to go to college despite the plane ticket to Richmond, Virginia. That is her mother’s plan, not hers. She leads her mother to believe in it, going so far as to say goodbye at the airport, her mother secure in the illusion that she’s left. Ex-boyfriend Isaac doesn’t believe in her hunger for a more essential life, but someone does. All she wants is to leave the bustle and noise of modern day life behind, the path to her desire comes in the form of a stranger she meets at a bus station on her way back to Isaac and Durham, hoping he will let her squat. The scarred stranger’s magnetic presence draws her in, before long she finds herself enthralled by his tales of the Ash Family, named for having started in Asheville, North Carolina. The members all sustain themselves and each other in an old farmhouse in the holler, their own utopia with animals, a vegetable patch and an orchard. “Thirty people and growing”, she could be one of them if the family accepts her, but three days and either you leave or stay forever. Three days, no exceptions.

Everything starts out with such promise, living off the grid among brothers and sisters, what feels cold at first turns into beauty, “I was awestruck under a wild star-smeared sky.” Of course, things fall apart as they always do, rules seem to bend and stretch for some people and cruelty rears it’s ugly head. Why would you ever leave, right, when you are with the people who really love you? Who needs medical care in the fake world when they have Pear and her natural healing ways? Listen, I am all for natural medicine, but I sure wouldn’t take an herb to cure a brain tumor or ignore it if my appendix burst, how about you? I’m more inclusive, nature embracing science, why must it be one or the other?  The problem with utopia is power and control because there always seems to be a leader that wants to give you rules. Being at peace is easy when you don’t have to interact with others and their ideas. Is it freedom if punishment and acceptance is meted out under the critical eye of a ‘father’? Father’s need obedient children.

Berie is a lost soul and for a time, she chooses to acquiesce. “The gale came into me, and blew all my doors and windows open.”  But being blown about by the wind and putting your faith, will into another’s hands never bodes well and surely can’t last. They don’t need anything that nature doesn’t provide, though over time hypocrisy shows itself. The rules don’t always make sense, what begins as a back to earth experience seems more tests of loyalty to the cause. The rot sets in, Berie finds serious flaws and weaknesses within herself and the family. Dice demands sacrifices. This peace loving community is at war with those that would destroy the environment and be the Ash Family’s ruin, even if they must turn on their own people, ignoring illness, letting nature take it’s course… so be it.

Oh boy, will she ever leave? Will she remain a sort of pawn for the ‘father’ of the Ash Family’s plans? How did Bay get those scars, by the by, she wonders. What worked about the novel is that it exposes the ugly side of commune living, while also telling the story of how easy it is, when lost, to latch on to something dangerous. Sometimes searching for a more authentic life can be ruinous, particularly if it means letting go of your will. Berie’s desire for more than what is on offer, her need to journey down an unexplored path is a struggle for many people. The need to be inspired by something bigger than what other’s expect of you burns within us and is at its strongest when you’re young and just beginning to question your place in the world. Berie has other issues that complicate her relationships, Bay seems like a gift from the universe. But her eyes are clouded over with weariness for the world, one she needs to reject, she is so tired of trying so why not hand the wheel over to someone else. It’s easy to remain a child and allow others to push you along, that’s how cults work you know. Believe in something or someone else when you don’t believe in yourself. What can you do when you feel like you don’t fit the times? Don’t go into this novel thinking it’s going to be a happy back to nature story, it turns ugly.

Publication Date: April 9, 2019

Simon & Schuster